For Bo Bichette, this year has been a non-stop grind.
The Toronto Blue Jays shortstop began his fourth year of pro ball with a miserable April (.535 OPS), which framed the entire 2022 season as one giant quest to work his numbers back to where they belong.
And by all accounts, he has gradually improved. Since June 1, Bichette has steadily raised his average exit velocity and dropped his swing-and-miss rate. But September has brought out an entirely new version of Bichette — and the second leg of Monday’s twin bill versus the Baltimore Orioles represented the peak of the 24-year-old’s progression.
In the third inning, he hit a monstrous three-run blast that sailed over Camden Yards’ pesky new left-field wall. In the sixth, Bichette went deep to right field. His third and final homer sailed straight-away to center in the seventh.
Right away, the trio of dingers offered all baseball fans a vivid reminder of why Bichette is still one of the best young infielders in MLB. When he homered again Tuesday, it became abundantly clear the Blue Jays shortstop had found his stroke. He now has seven hits in his last 10 at-bats heading into Thursday's series-closer in Baltimore, including four home runs.
So, what change has Bichette made to lead MLB in average (.593), OPS (1.866) and wRC+ (437) through the first six games in September?
First off, he’s swinging more often, which for a hitter of Bichette’s breed (high chase, high contact, low walk) is a good thing. The last thing you want to see from a player with Bichette’s abilities is him second-guess himself at the dish. When he’s unsure of himself, we’ll often see some half-commitments, leading to ugly check-swing strikeouts. Full-bore Bichette is the best version of Bichette. That’s what Toronto has in him right now.
The second component in Bichette’s rapid uptick in production stems from two foundational principles that make meat-of-the-order hitters effective: success in hitters’ counts (0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1) and potency with runners in scoring position. Since August 20 – which is when Bichette’s hot streak began – he is batting .429 and slugging .762 in hitters’ counts. From Opening Day to August 20, he batted .325 and slugged just .506 in those favorable counts.
With runners on, the same trend has continued. Before August 20, Bichette slashed just .218/.273/.382 with men in scoring position, a stat line that led to a demotion in the batting order. Since August 20, however, Bichette is slashing .333/.368/.778 in RISP scenarios.
With Bichette swinging a white-hot twig, the Blue Jays bats have compensated for a few blow-up pitching performances. Since August 1, Toronto’s starting pitching staff has been respectable (3.93 ERA, 15th in MLB) but that fifth-starter spot, now filled by Mitch White and his 8.17 ERA with the Jays, has necessitated some extra wallop on offense.
Tuesday’s game was a great example of a dilemma that Toronto will face over the remaining four weeks of the season. The club got out to an early lead; White coughed it up; the Jays clawed back (thanks to four hits by Bichette) but couldn’t complete the comeback.
With 27 games remaining, including 22 contests against AL East opponents, Toronto has a challenging but clear-cut path to a playoff spot. A good month of September guarantees an October berth. A spectacular month could win the Blue Jays the division, since the once-infallible New York Yankees have crumbled in the second half (17-26 record) and sit six games ahead of Toronto for first place in the AL East.
While Bichette hasn’t been stellar against the Yanks this year (.658 OPS), he has a much better career track record (.897 OPS) versus the Bronx Bombers. Last year in late September, the Jays shortstop delivered one of the most memorable moments of the 2021 season when he cranked an eighth-inning go-ahead homer off reliever Clay Holmes.
BO KNOWS CLUTCH HOME RUNS
AND THE CURTAIN CALL 👏 pic.twitter.com/BphL4tP57V
— Tim and Friends (@timandfriends) September 30, 2021
After rounding the bases and shouting, “This is our house,” Bichette eventually spoke with the media, insisting he walked up to the plate for that at-bat with the intention of going yard.
"I was trying to hit a home run there, actually," said Bichette, who put up a .976 OPS last September. "Just lucky I got it."
Right now, it appears Bichette is again playing with that level of confidence, which is a treat for the Blue Jays and a nightmare for any opposing pitcher who faces him with the game on the line.
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